Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Stalin and Stalinism in History (2012)

16 minutes | English Français

On 12 April 2012, the Gabriel Péri Foundation hosted a panel on the question of “Stalin and Stalinism in History,” featuring anti-communist historian Nicolas Werth — who contributed the USSR chapters to Stéphane Courtois’s infamous Black Book of Communism (1997) — and philosopher Domenico Losurdo. [1] [2] Below is Domenico Losurdo’s keynote address. All citations are my addition. — R. D.

Philosophers like to evoke not only historical events but also the categories through which we interpret these events. Today, what is the category through which Stalin is interpreted? That of bloodthirsty madness. This category has already been used against Robespierre, against the Revolution of 1848, against the Paris Commune, but never against war, or against Louis XVI, or against the Girondins or Napoleon. Regarding the twentieth century, we have psychopathological studies of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, but not, for example, of Churchill. [3] However, all of the Bolshevik leaders spoke up against colonial expansionism, while Churchill wrote: “War is a game that is played with a smile.” [4] Then there was the carnage of the First World War. The Bolshevik leadership group, including Stalin, was against this carnage, but Churchill said again: “War is the greatest game in world history, here I play with the highest stakes. War is the sole acute sensation of our lives.” [5] So, why the psychopathological approach in the one case and not in the other?

Given these conditions, what central category can we part from? For the sake of reflection, I will cite Nicolas Werth: “The source (matrice) of Stalinism was the period of the First World War, the revolutions of 1917, and the Civil Wars, taken as a whole.” I fully share this view. So we have to start with the First World War. The origins of Stalinism lie not in an individual’s thirst for power, but in the permanent state of emergency that started with the First World War. But we need to take into account not just the First World War, but the whole period of the Second Thirty Years’ War — because even after the Treaty of Versailles, everyone sensed that there would be a Second World War. This is a war that would affect the Soviet Union and the West in different ways. The war in the East, against the Soviet Union — and before that, against Poland — was a colonial war. Eminent scholars today characterize the war against the Soviet Union as “the greatest colonial war in history.” [6] And I would add that this war was not just a colonial war, but a slaver war, explicitly aimed at the reintroduction of slavery. We can read about this in Hitler or Himmler. The latter, speaking at a meeting of Nazi leaders, declared “we need slaves for our culture.” [7] Then, if Hitler-led Germany was one of the protagonists of this colonial and slaver war, the Stalin-led Soviet Union was the other — its antagonist.

We can also place this war in a larger historical context. There is another important slaver war that we can consider: Napoleon’s war against Saint-Domingue. Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were protagonists of a resistance to slavery, just like Stalin. And regarding this connection I want to draw attention to the fact that Stalin did not become a protagonist only in Stalingrad 1942 — even before the October Revolution he considered that Russia was in danger of becoming a colony: “Certain foreigners,” he writes “were behaving in Russia like Europeans in Central Africa.” [8] I’ll quote him again: the question of the Revolution is about “the liberation of Russia.” [9] Stalin clearly perceived a risk that Russia would become a colony.

Let’s now turn to the objection: “But what about the 1939 pact with Hitler?” For starters, to the extent there was a race to compromise with Hitler, Stalin lost it: the Third Reich had by that time a concordat with the Holy See (Reichskonkordat, 1933), an agreement with the Zionists (Haavara Agreement, 1933), and a naval agreement with Britan (Anglo-German Naval Agreement, 1935) — the last of which prompted Hitler to write in his diary: “this is the happiest day of my life.” [10] And then, of course, there was Munich (1938). [11] But that’s perhaps not the most important point. Here again I’ll draw a comparison with the politics of Toussaint Louverture, whose anti-conformism is beyond dispute: in early 1794 he allied with royal Spain and England against revolutionary France, and yet no one considers him an agent of feudalism. Toussaint Louverture and his followers may have made mistakes, but the fact that they were protagonists in the first great struggle against the colonialist and slave-owning system is not disputed.

Thus far I’ve only talked about grand gestures and not of tragedies, but the two things go hand-in-hand, because with the October Revolution come messianic expectations: power, the rationale behind States, States as such, nations… all of this was expected to disappear. One philosopher, Ernst Bloch, even claims Soviets will turn power into love! When Lenin introduces the New Economic Policy (NEP), tens of thousands of workers literally tear up their party cards in disgust, and rechristen it the “New Extortion of the Proletariat.” Stalin, of course, wasn’t Lenin, but he insisted on building socialism in Soviet Russia, although premised above all on national liberation: that’s how he invited people to study technology, to become masters of science. He thought the class struggle revolved, at this particular juncture, around the conquest of technology and of science.

When Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in December 1927, he said that, for many people, Bolshevism was the crowning achievement of Peter the Great. [12] However, Trotsky compares Stalin not to Peter the Great but to Nicholas II — and so the Stalinist regime must be dealt a fate analogous to that dealt to Nicholas II’s regime. [13] Trotsky then called Stalin “Hitler’s butler,” “a provocateur in Hitler’s service.” In turn, Stalin used the same language against Trotsky and others. This is the language of civil war. From his point of view, as a revolutionary, Trotsky had not only the right but also the duty to overthrow Hitler’s so-called butler. And this civil war was playing out not only in words, but also at the organizational level. In my book on Stalin, I quote Ruth Fischer, who says that by 1927 we can already speak of opposing parties and military apparatuses. [14]

The ideological struggle becomes a civil war: unfortunately, this is the history of all great revolutions. The civil war in Russia was particularly horrific, that’s not in dispute. But how can we understand the particularity of this horror? The challenge is to come up with categories which enable us to understand this horror in particular. On this subject, a well-known historian in the Western world, Robert Conquest, argues that “mental aberrations” are peculiar to the French and Russians, and mostly foreign to the Anglo-Celts. [15] Is this recourse to Anglo-Celtic natures as root explanation any different from Nazi recourse to Aryanism? For my part, in order to understand the particular horror of the civil war in Soviet Russia, I’ll quote Nicolas Werth again: “The collapse of all authority and institutional frameworks.” [16]

Let me emphasize: the Trotsky-Stalin struggle is not one between two different personalities. It’s a struggle between two different principles of legitimizing power.

What’s more, the civil war in Soviet Russia is characterized by the fact that both the opposing parties have experience in conspiracy and clandestine struggle, and agree upon the necessity underlined by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? of agitating within the army, the police, and the State apparatus; all while camouflaging and hiding it by speaking sometimes in an “aesopic language.” It should also be noted here that even Khrushchev in his report speaks of false denunciations and “provocatory accusations,” made either by “real Trotskyites” — who could thus “take revenge” and thrust the State apparatus into confusion — or by “conscienceless careerists” — prepared to get ahead by the most despicable means. [17] [18]

The dominant ideology equates the gulag system and the concentration camps (konzentrationslager) in Nazi Germany. In my book I discuss the “absent third party.” As a matter of fact, there are other concentration camps. Mike Davis brings the militarized labor camps of colonial India in the late 19th century, referring to them as “extermination camps.” [19] An Italian historian, Angelo Del Boca, also speaks of extermination camps, this time of Libyans incarcerated by liberal Italy. If we compare the various different camps, there is an important similarity between Nazi concentration camps and colonial camps: in both cases, the rule is a racial rule.

Ideology also plays a role in the terror. The most horrifying period was the collectivization of agriculture. Bukharin rightly spoke of the danger of a “St. Bartholomew’s Night.” [20] But finally the decisive role in collectivization was played by military concerns — though it in no way detracts from the horror.

One has to distinguish between horror and mythology. After the French Revolution mythologies spread widely, such as Robespierre wanting to become the new King of France, or of a genocidal Robespierre who, according to Babeuf, wanted to enact in the Vendée a “system of depopulation.” The October Revolution and the Stalinist period gave rise to mythologies of this sort.

The central question is the following: is Nazism the twin brother of Communism, or is Nazism the continuation and radicalization of the colonial tradition and the racial ideology that accompanied it? [21] This is a very important question. As a philosopher, I interrogate the watchwords of Nazi ideology. One of these is Untermensch, which is to say “sub-human.” This word is translated from English, from the expression under man, first used by Lothrop Stoddard in the United States. In Nazism, we find white supremacy [22] — the category of the colonial tradition and of the racist ideology of the United States. Similarly, while the Nazis spoke of “racial hygiene,” Lothrop Stoddard spoke of “race cleaning,” “race purification,” and, more generally, of “the science of ‘Eugenics’ or ‘Race Betterment’.” Even the decisive term “final solution” comes from the United States, where the Black or Indigenous question was referred to as the “ultimate solution” or the “final and complete solution.” [23]

Indeed, British and Western colonialism have long been compared to Hitler’s colonialism. Gandhi said: “I assert that in India we have Hitlerian rule however disguised it may be in softer terms.” [24] “Hitler was Britain’s sin.” On the other hand, he referred to Stalin as a “great man.”

In conclusion, the horror of the Stalinist period is indisputable, but we cannot forget that Stalin was a protagonist of the anti-colonial struggle. Similarly, if we want to understand Hitler, we have to start from the history of colonialism. All the harsh condemnations of Stalin must reckon with this fact: with the October Revolution and with Stalin, we see colonialism begin to disappear, and with it also go the central categories of Nazi ideology stemming from the colonial tradition and the racial ideology of the West.

[1] See also Nicolas Werth’s speech at the same meeting. [web] 

[2] Referenced in Grover Furr, “In Memoriam: Domenico Losurdo” (2018). [web] 

[3] See also Michael Parenti’s “Against Psychopolitics” (1992). [web] 

[4] Winston Churchill (1915) cited in Martin Gilbert’s The Challenge of War: Winston S. Churchill, 1914-1916 (1990), p. 651. [web] 

[5] In Alex P. Schmid, Churchills privater Krieg. Intervention und Konterrevolution im russischen Burgerkrieg 1918-1920 (1974). [web] 

[6] David Olusoga and Casper W. Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide (2011), London: Faber and Faber, p. 327. 

[7] Heinrich Himmler, Posen Speeches (1943). [web] 

[8] J. V. Stalin, “Foreigners and the Kornilov Conspiracy” (12 September 1917). [web] 

[9] J. V. Stalin, “The Logic of Facts” (29 October 1918). [web] 

[10] In Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998). [web] 

[11] “The Munich Agreement was an agreement reached in Munich on 30 September 1938 by Nazi Germany, Great Britain, the French Republic, and Fascist Italy. The agreement provided for the German annexation of part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland.” — Wikipedia. [web] 

[12] Peter I (b. 1672-1725) was the Tsar under whose reign people began referring to Russia as an empire, due to military victories, territorial expansion, and cultural modernization. 

[13] Nicholas II (b. 1868-1917), overthrown by the revolution, was the last Tsar of Russia, known for military defeats and violent repression. 

[14] For Domenico Losurdo’s take on Trotsky and Stalin, see “Primitive Thinking and Stalin as Scapegoat” (2011). [web] 

[15] “The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. […] How did these mental aberrations gain a purchase?” (p. 3), “[S]pontaneous legal, public activity is clearly an adjunct, if not a condition, of the Anglo-Celtic culture” (p. 32), “The intention here is more to consider how and why this aberration took place, to differentiate its various species, […]” (p. 115) — Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999). [web] 

[16] Nicholas Werth in Stéphane Courtois, Quand tombe la nuit: origines et émergence des régimes totalitaires en Europe, 1900-1934 (2001). [web] 

[17] N. Khrushchev, “Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U.” (1956). [web] 

[18] See also Domenico Losurdo, “How to Cast a God into Hell: The Khrushchev Report” (2008). [web] 

[19] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2000). [web] 

[20] “The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations and a wave of Catholic mob violence directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) during the French Wars of Religion.” — Wikipedia. [web] 

[21] See Domenico Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism” (2004). [web] 

[22] Written out in English in the original French. 

[23] Losurdo extensively lays out material illustrating this question in “The International Origins of Nazism” (2010). [web] 

[24] Mahatma Gandhi, “Answers to Questions (25 April 1941)” in Collected Works, vol. 74, p. 17. [web]